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The stat continues to be referenced in this space because it is somewhat hard to believe: Irish receivers accounted for three catches and 11 yards in Notre Dame’s 49-20 victory over Boston College last weekend. As a whole, the passing game accounted for 96 of the 611 total Irish yards.
“Clearly we have to work on our weaknesses, right?” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “So wherever we feel like our weaknesses are within the offense, we have to get better at those weaknesses each and every week.”
The weakness would seem to be the aerial attack as a whole with an emphasis on threats created by the supposed downfield playmakers. The latter half of this particular topic will be discussed into the ground. There are a few reasons for that.
1: The Irish rushing attack has been so dynamic there is little, if anything, to reasonably assail in that aspect of the game.
2: The Notre Dame defense has exceeded any realistic preseason expectations such that, though not perfect, it is a welcome surprise for Irish fans and, presumably, Irish coaches alike.
3: Junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s accuracy issues do not leave much for the imagination or any debate. They are what they are and will remain just that until improved.
“The question that probably hit it the most was recognition, being comfortable with the route, where the receiver is, and just trusting it,” Kelly said of his quarterback’s misfires. “Once [Wimbush] gets to that level and trusts it — he trusts that corner route, that six route, he loves to throw that route, you can see that he loved throwing it — once he gets to that level with his passing game, he’ll throw it with the same kind of accuracy.”
It seems distinctly possible doubting Notre Dame’s receivers may remain the critic’s tactic all season long. Whether that is the case or not, let’s hit pause and offer a quick plot synopsis. With 11 scholarship receivers on the roster, this may take a few minutes. In no particular order other than the easiest transitions in writing:
Junior Equanimeous St. Brown
St. Brown has been the one consistent Irish receiver, even if that does not necessarily show up on the stat sheet. It certainly did not against the Eagles, when he recorded one, three-yard reception. Whenever Kelly refers to only one receiver doing anything of positive connotation, he is referencing St. Brown. For example:
“Accuracy is a product of being comfortable within an offense, an offense that has changed a little bit from what [Wimbush] was used to running,” Kelly said. “It also has to do with really only having one receiver that has established himself in the program for a period of time. He’s working with some new receivers.”
Kelly and offensive coordinator Chip Long may continue to experiment with different options and new combinations. St. Brown will remain a constant.
To some degree, his breakout sophomore campaign doomed how his junior year would be viewed. That does not excuse seven catches for 99 yards and one score through three games, but it does help explain some of the lens through which that stat line is viewed. As was written in St. Brown’s 99-to-2 entry before the season:
“Suffice it to say, St. Brown exceeded any and all expectations in 2016, beginning with his tumbling touchdown against Texas. In a way, those successes make it likely St. Brown falls short of expectations in 2017. If he does appear to take a step back, whether that is shown in statistics or not, it could be partly due to the added depth.”
Fifth-year Arizona State transfer Cameron Smith
In retrospect, the offseason arrival of the graduate transfer could have been seen as an indication Long was not yet satisfied with the receivers already on hand. Instead, the newcomer was presumed to be a luxury from Long’s past. The two spent three years together at Arizona State before Long moved to Memphis for the 2016 season.
“Smith already knows Long’s offensive tendencies,” this space wrote in the summer. “Slipping into a familiar offensive approach should not take much time at all. Long may be most grateful for Smith’s on-field presence as the Irish learn to embrace an up-tempo offense. Smith is already used to it.”
Some of Smith’s success may indeed derive from his institutional knowledge rather than from a lack of performers otherwise. He missed the Boston College contest due to a sprained ankle, racking up seven catches for 54 yards in the two games preceding it. Kelly expects him to return this weekend.
“The one thing about Cam is he’s extremely physical, a great blocker,” Kelly said. “He can catch the football.
“We’ve got to catch it better at all positions, though, not just one position. But he’s definitely a guy that adds to our receiving depth.”
Sophomore Chase Claypool
If St. Brown and Smith are the closest the Irish come to sure things, Claypool may have used the victory over the Eagles to position himself as the next best bet. He made two of those three catches and gained eight of those 11 yards. Those numbers are not much, but it cannot be denied they led the Irish receivers.
Throughout the spring and most of the preseason, Claypool was seen as a possible starter at the slot position, even though his 6-foot-4, 228-pound frame is far from typical for the inside spot.
“Sending Claypool’s frame on quick routes across the middle should provide junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush an especially-dynamic safety valve of sorts,” the respective 99-to-2 entry posited.
Against Boston College, though, Claypool saw more action on the boundary, opposite St. Brown. The next day Kelly indicated that is likely to continue, though the depth chart Notre Dame released Tuesday does not hold to that. In this instance, deferring to the actual statement makes more sense than abiding by a superfluous depth chart.
Here, Claypool’s two targets through the first two games of the season show his inconsistencies. On one play, a clean route to an open spot on the field yields a 16-yard gain. On the other, he drops a screen pass, always an added danger due to the greater-than-usual possibility the incompletion becomes a fumble.
Junior Miles Boykin
With Claypool emerging at the boundary position, it seems Boykin may be on the way out. That theory is underscored when realizing Wimbush has yet to target Boykin. Sophomore Ian Book did twice in the closing minutes Saturday, both falling incomplete.
Continuing to use 99-to-2 entries to give an idea where one fool thought each player stood during the summer, a look at Boykin’s reminds his drop back down the depth chart was always a consideration.
“Boykins’ rise to the top of the depth chart this spring was always a possibility, if not necessarily a likely one following the 2016 season. … Boykin’s pedigree kept this result in play despite his minimal role. The question now is, will he maintain this consistency and thus create more opportunities for himself?”
It appears that answer may be no.
Junior Chris Finke
Finke was the odd-man out when the theoretical springtime starting trio was St. Brown-Claypool-Boykin. It took him seven quarters to get a target this season, but he quickly made the most of it and the soon-to-follow opportunities. In just the fourth quarter against Georgia, Finke caught three of four targets for 36 yards.
His ability to create a window within traffic is one not displayed by any of the other Irish receivers yet this year. Where that went against the Eagles may be one of the more perplexing wonderings so far this September. Then again, the running game’s success rendered the point quite moot.
Junior C.J. Sanders
The other most-likely option at the slot, Sanders is actually listed as a boundary possibility on the aforementioned depth chart, behind Smith, on the same level as freshman Michael Young. If remembering Kelly’s comments about Claypool, it seems more accurate to depict Sanders as the third in line there, at best.
Given he has yet to be targeted this season — and, frankly, memory fails to recall him taking an offensive snap, but add to that a few grains of salt — that at best is awfully necessary.
Sanders has continued to return kicks, coming oh-so-close to breaking a couple for big moments. His greatest skill remains finding a lane and accelerating. There is a reason Finke returns punts — he is shiftier than Sanders, more dangerous in close quarters. Simply enough, that skill translates better to offensive snaps.
That discrepancy began to show itself in 2016’s second half. Sanders totaled 24 catches for 293 yards and two touchdowns. On the surface, that is a modest stat line for a sophomore, certainly one opening the door for conversations about potential. Looking deeper, though, Sanders made only seven catches for 39 yards in the season’s final seven games.
“One of Notre Dame’s pass-catchers is going to be left on the outside looking in at opportunities within a high-scoring offense,” Sanders’ 99-to-2 entry read. “Sanders seems a likely candidate. … As much as Long’s tendencies may suggest Sanders’ role in the passing game may be minimal, the last half of his 2016 did not do the junior any favors, either.”
Freshman Michael Young
Young’s ascension to a prominent role remains theoretical, but the time may be coming quickly.
“He presents himself in a manner that he could be a guy that does a little bit more than just a guy that is downfield,” Kelly said Tuesday. “We think he can be a screen guy, maybe a jet sweep guy. He’s got a little bit of all those tools.
“It’s too early really to tell other than the fact that we really like his work ethic, his attitude, his football intelligence is really high. It’s put him in a good position early in his career. I see him more as a multi-dimensional player than maybe a perimeter player.”
Kelly did not make those comments with Sanders in mind, but they may speak as much to why the junior has yet to contribute on offense this year while the freshman is readying to do so. Young may have the ability to shed a tackle on a screen, while Sanders would need the alley to be waiting for him.
Young’s only catch this season, in fact, came on exactly such a play.
Freshman Jafar Armstrong
Young’s classmate has yet to see the field this year. It may be too soon to chalk that up to a guaranteed year of preserving eligibility, but it would be unexpected to see him play at this point.
Sophomore Kevin Stepherson
Much time has been spent fretting about Stepherson’s future. The most definitive statement to date has been the absence of his name on Notre Dame’s travel roster on the trip to Boston College. It would logically seem unlikely that changes on this weekend’s jaunt.
Senior Freddy Canteen
Canteen will miss the rest of the season due to a torn labrum.
Sophomore Javon McKinley
Kelly said Sunday he hopes to preserve a year of McKinley’s eligibility this season.
Of the 11 rostered receivers, seven have a viable chance at making an impact for the Irish this season. They would benefit from Wimbush improving upon his accuracy, but that quickly becomes a chicken and egg debate.
The odds are this hole in the Irish offense will last past this weekend. Notre Dame will focus on winning more than on developing its passing game.
“We’re going to do what we’re good at,” Kelly said. “That’s what you’ll see from this offense moving forward.”
Then again, it is also distinctly possible this speculation dies on the vine Saturday night. That is not meant as an optimistic conclusion’s tease. It is meant as an acknowledgement of the realities of college football, of 18- to 22-year-olds and of three-week sample sizes.
A nod where a nod is due, this piece was knocking around the mind, only to be kicked into existence by a request from ndpourtjrs: Douglas, if your agenda permits would you mind running a recap on our receiver crops with some profile info? This situation may prove to be a pivotal point for the season. Thank you!
It was the yet-to-be-earned gratitude that sealed the deal. You’re welcome, ndpourtjrs.
It is not quite an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object, but when Notre Dame travels to Michigan State this weekend, the focus will be on what success the Irish can have running the football against a staunch Spartans defense.
Michigan State has hosted Bowling Green and Western Michigan thus far this season, holding the two to a combined 220 rushing yards on 55 attempts (when adjusting for the Spartans’ five sacks for a loss of 37 yards), an average of 4.0 yards per carry.
Notre Dame, meanwhile, has gained 1,023 yards on 127 carries, an average of 8.06 yards per rush.
Something will have to give.
“They do what they do. They’re stingy against the run,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “They’re very physical in the back end. They play tight man coverage. They mix it up very good with their pressure package.
“Led by coach [Mark] Dantonio’s philosophy, they’ve always been really good defensively.”
That “tight man coverage” thought may seem an outlier when discussing Michigan State’s penchant for stopping the run, but it is that man-to-man coverage allowing Dantonio to devote an increased number of bodies to stopping the run. It could also be the item allowing Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush to break loose at times.
When those defensive backs, and perhaps even linebackers covering tight ends or running backs, turn to cover a route, they lose site of the quarterback. With a mobile passer such as Wimbush, the backs of those helmets can turn a run-pass option play into a quick run for a worthwhile gain.
“If teams are feeling as though playing man-to-man and turning their back on the quarterback is the way they want to defend us, he’s going to run a lot,” Kelly said. “I know I wouldn’t want to be in man-to-man versus option offenses. It’s the last thing that you want to do, turn your back on an option quarterback and give him all the field to run.
“Teams are starting to figure out how to defend us, too. … If we see more zone coverages, he’s going to have to be able to throw the football. We’ve got to continue to grow as an offense in both those phases.”
The aerial phase of the offense will be determined by any improved accuracy from Wimbush and the emergence of more reliable receivers, an unavoidable topic following a game where that combination managed a meager 96 passing yards.
While Kelly did not excuse the extent of that struggle, he did indicate a slow start to the season might have been expected of Wimbush. This is, after all, his first collegiate action.
“We’re three games into this, he’s only going to feel more comfortable each and every week,” Kelly said. “These conversations that we’re having right now are totally natural for a first-year starter. He’s had a clipboard and a headset, that’s it. Now he’s in the middle of it.
“You’ll continue to see progress from him from week to week.”
That progress notwithstanding, look for the Irish to rely on the run as much as possible this weekend. Along with that will come zone reads, counters, and the rest of the ground game gamut.
“We can’t appease people in terms of what looks good as much as we’re were going to be good at,” Kelly said. “If running the football is what is going to be the common denominator for wins, then that’s what we’re doing. Efficiency is the most important thing.”
Resting Josh Adams six days a week
Wimbush may have scored four rushing touchdowns last week, but junior running back Josh Adams absorbs more of the physical toll of the ground game than any other Notre Dame ballcarrier. To date, Adams has taken 56 attempts for 443 yards.
To keep the bell cow fresh, the Irish coaching staff has reduced some of his workload during the week.
“We’re very cognizant of how we practice him, making sure that he gets the proper work, that he’s sharp when we get to Saturday,” Kelly said. “We let our best players play.
“It’s really incumbent upon us to do a great job of preparing him, but understanding that he’s got to feel really good when we get to Saturdays.”
The return of Cam Smith
Fifth year receiver Cam Smith missed the Boston College game due to a sprained ankle suffered in practice last week. Kelly said he expects Smith to be 100 percent this week.
A recruiting conversation about the NBA
In recent conversations, Kelly has praised the football intelligence of a few players, most notably junior cornerback Shawn Crawford and freshman receiver Michael Young. That may seem a difficult quality to gauge when recruiting 17-year-olds. So, Kelly doesn’t. Instead, he focuses on their broader understanding of and interest in sports.
“I actually like to talk about other sports,” Kelly said. “If they don’t know anything about Kyrie Irving and the trade with the Celtics, I get a little nervous.”
Typically, whenever Kelly mentions a Boston professional sports team, it is meant in jest as a reminder of his fandom allegiances. In this instance, it was an accurate acknowledgement of the biggest non-football sports story of the summer. At least, the biggest in this country.
“Those that understand sports, whether it be basketball, football, whatever they follow, other sports other than football itself, they generally have an understanding of the games,” Kelly said. “There are so many carryovers with other sports.
“I get a little nervous when somebody doesn’t know anything about any other sport.”
Last week, Notre Dame’s opponents enjoyed a 6-2 record, not counting Boston College’s loss to the Irish. This coming week, however, will prove a much more difficult slate. Exactly half of the dozen are favored with none facing each other.
Temple (2-1): The Owls needed a 13-yard touchdown pass from junior quarterback Logan Marchi to sophomore receiver Isaiah Wright with only 3:48 remaining to make it a two-score game against Massachusetts this weekend. The Minutemen got another score, but thanks to Marchi’s consistency, the last-minutes touchdown was not enough to catch Temple. The Owls prevailed 29-21, and Marchi continued his interception-less streak to start the season.
That streak will be tested Thursday at South Florida (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). The Bulls are favored by a mere 20.5 points with a combined points total over/under of 61. A 41-20 trouncing would not bode well for Temple in the American Athletic Conference this fall.
On a somewhat unrelated note, it was recently posited to your definitely-not-too-focused-on-gambling-lines scribe that favorites of 20 points or more win outright more than 98 percent of the time. Logically, that makes sense, but a spreadsheet now exists to quietly track that for the remainder of the season to gauge just how secure those endeavors may be.
Georgia (3-0): Georgia beat up on FCS-level Samford 42-14. Freshman quarterback Jake Fromm went 8-for-13 passing for 165 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. Nonetheless, sophomore quarterback Jacob Eason reportedly returned to practice Monday, though in a limited role.
The Bulldogs used a 21-0 third quarter to end any Samford dreams.
Whoever starts at quarterback this week will have a tough task. Georgia hosts Mississippi State (7 p.m. ET on ESPN). The Bulldogs are favored by 6.5 as of this Tuesday a.m. writing with an over/under of 48.5. Quick math and some rounding hint at a 27-21 final.
Boston College (1-2): The Eagles lost to Notre Dame 49-20. You knew that, right?
The sledding will get much rougher for Boston College now, heading to defending national champion Clemson (3:30 p.m. ET on ESPN2). A 34-point margin is predicted with an over/under of merely 51.5. Suffice it to say, losing 43-8 would not do any good for Eagles head coach Steve Addazio’s future no matter who the opponent may be.
Michigan State (2-0): The Spartans enjoyed a bye week and now host, who is it again, hmmm, oh! Right! Michigan State faces Notre Dame at 8 p.m. ET on Fox. The spread is up to five, favoring the Irish, with an over/under of 54, indicating something along the lines of 30-24.
Miami (OH) (1-2): Chuck Martin has officially lost momentum. A 21-17 loss to Cincinnati at home will do that. The defeat was even more spirit-crushing than usual. The RedHawks led 14-3 entering the fourth quarter. They led 17-6 with fewer than three minutes remaining. A touchdown followed by a two-point conversion cut the lead to 17-14 and then an interception returned for a touchdown 70 seconds later gifted the Bearcats a victory.
Miami did not exactly play stellar football, though. The RedHawks converted only three of 14 third downs and gained a whopping 70 rushing yards on 32 attempts, a 2.2 yards per carry average.
Martin and Miami will look to right the ship this weekend on a trip to Central Michigan (3:30 p.m. ET on Watch ESPN). Despite the road venue, the RedHawks are only two-point underdogs with an over/under of 53.5. Another close loss, perhaps 28-25, would be all-too deflating for Martin’s reclamation efforts.
North Carolina (1-2): Congratulations Tar Heels, you found a win. Sure, it was a 53-23 delight at FCS-level Old Dominion, but a win is a win is a [four-beat pause] win. After giving up 72 points combined in your first two games, you gave up only 23 to the Monarchs, with seven of those coming from a kickoff return for a touchdown.
North Carolina next hosts Duke (3:30 p.m. ET on ESPNU). Those not too familiar with some of the norms of gambling spreads should remember home-field advantage is usually good for a three-point swing in the projected margin. With that in mind, raise an eyebrow at the Tar Heels being three-point underdogs to the Blue Devils with an over/under of 63.5, indicating a 34-30 type of afternoon.
That spread seems about right. That point total seems a bit low, especially when considering North Carolina’s defensive performances thus far this season.
USC (3-0): The Trojans found their way to a 27-24 double overtime win against Texas. It was dramatic and entertaining and, if being honest, somewhat underwhelming.
If anything was learned, USC now knows it has a calm and confident kicker in freshman walk-on Chase McGrath.
He should not have too much to worry about this weekend. The Trojans head up to Cal (3:30 p.m. ET on ABC) to face the overmatched Bears. A 16.5-point spread and an over/under of 63 points results in a guess of 40-24, advantage USC.
North Carolina State (2-1): The Wolfpack enjoyed a 49-16 victory over FCS-level Furman, otherwise known as the Paladins, a truly exemplar team nickname, and fitting they had to travel to Raleigh.
North Carolina State now has to do the traveling, all the way down to Tallahassee to try and prove wrong an 11-point spread in favor of Florida State. The 51 point over/under implies a 31-20 finale. It may be a bit bold to predict the Wolfpack to win outright, but a cover and an under would go hand-in-hand.
Wake Forest (3-0): Three years ago, the Demon Deacons lost to Utah State 36-24. This past weekend, Wake Forest beat the Aggies 46-10.
By no means is that a sign of Utah State’s fall. It is, rather, a distinct note of the Deacons’ improvement.
That will be tested at Appalachian State this weekend (3:30 p.m. ET on Watch ESPN). This line opened at Wake Forest by three, but it has already moved up to 4.5, indicating the world is onto the Deacons rising. An over/under of 46 leads to considerations of a 25-21 finale. That would certainly be entertaining, but figure Wake Forest’s roll will continue with a bit more ease than that.
Miami (FL) (1-0): Hurricane Irma postponed Miami’s date at Florida State until Oct. 7. Having played all of one game this year, the Hurricanes will be eager to host Toledo (3:30 p.m. ET on ACC Network). They may be too eager to cover a 13.5-spread in their favor with an over/under of 57.5. That 35-22 final simply seems too wide.
Navy (2-0): The Midshipmen relished a bye week. Navy will now host Cincinnati. As 11.5-point favorites, the Midshipmen’s performance will provide a barometer of Miami (OH) as much as anything else. A 31-20 victory would indicate the RedHawks may be in for a long year while the Midshipmen get ready to challenge for the American Athletic title once again.
Stanford (1-2): The Cardinal fell for the second week in a row, this time at San Diego State by the score of 20-17 after the lights literally went out. This should not be seen as the end of times for head coach David Shaw’s Stanford. IT may be a tough loss, but they have set up too strong a program to let two-consecutive losses halt progress forward.
UCLA visits the Cardinal late Saturday (10:30 p.m. ET on ESPN). There is no way that 63-point total is not threatened, though Stanford remains favored by 7.5 points.
As always, these are questions with answers likely to come before Saturday night’s kickoff …
Will Cam Smith be healthy enough to get back on the field?
The fifth-year receiver suffered a sprained ankle in practice last week, limiting his reps throughout the week and keeping him from playing Saturday, per Irish coach Brian Kelly. That absence may have held more of an effect than was anticipated by anyone.
Certainly, Notre Dame’s receivers totaling three catches for 11 yards is not solely a reflection of Smith not being on the field. It is a sign of bigger issues, but that does not mean Smith would not have aided the cause. With his institutional knowledge of offensive coordinator Chip Long’s scheme from their days together at Arizona State, Smith has been consistent. His seven catches for 54 yards come from running clean, disciplined routes.
Getting him back onto the field could alleviate a slight bit of junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s accuracy issues. By no means would this eradicate the concern entirely, but even a small step in the right direction would be a welcome trend for the Irish at this point.
If Smith remains sidelined, did Chase Claypool do enough to maintain his spot as a starter?
Kelly answered this question Sunday, but it had already been worked into this concept’s draft and emphasizing it seems a valid decision.
Claypool will continue to see time, though more so at the boundary receiver position than the slot spot he worked at throughout spring and preseason practices. Of those three catches for 11 yards the receivers managed against Boston College, Claypool accounted for two receptions and eight yards.
“He was assignment correct,” Kelly said. “We saw him really grow in the areas that we wanted him to grow in.”
Along with Claypool, there was also some Michael Young innuendo last week. Will the depth chart now reflect that?
When Kelly discussed coming changes at receiver before the trip out east, he mentioned Claypool by name. He also seemed to imply another unexpected option could emerge.
“Guys are going to get banged up and we’re going to call on what I think will be outstanding depth at our wide receiver position,” Kelly said Thursday. “But we really do have to start to feature some guys that might not have all the experience but have a higher ceiling.”
At that point, Kelly knew Smith was injured, though perhaps he was still questionable to play. Kelly also presumably knew senior Freddy Canteen would need season-ending shoulder surgery this week. Those two bits could explain the first half of that paragraph.
The second half suggests Claypool would have company in the inexperienced with a “higher ceiling” category. With sophomore Javon McKinley intended to preserve a year of eligibility this season, freshman Michael Young is the most-likely candidate.
That presumption could be quickly confirmed in the Notre Dame depth chart this week.
How badly is Tony Jones’ ankle sprained?
Exactly a week ago, this piece wondered, “Through two games, are the Irish really still this healthy?” Through three games, the answer has become no.
Sophomore running back Tony Jones sprained his ankle against Boston College, only x-rays confirmed no further damage. As a running back, that injury can obviously be more than a nuisance and waiting for Jones to return to full health before playing him makes sense. If that takes longer than a week, it should lead to a bit more playing time for junior Dexter Williams. (more…)